Avery Braunecker boarded an elevator at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb., holding a bag of goodies -- kickboard, water bottle -- and wearing her credentials on a lanyard around her neck. All of it said she's a swimmer at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials.

It's the first thing she did -- check in -- when she got there last Wednesday, three days ahead of her race in the women's 50-meter freestyle.

Then, one after the other, three-time Olympic gold medalist Nathan Adrian and 18-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps walked onto her elevator. 

If she didn't realize where she was before, well...

Braunecker was maybe blushing. She said of Adrian, a sprinter like her, "he's very pretty." But she kept cool. She's been to enough of the same meets as those guys to know how to act around superstars: "No one really wants to be goggled at whenever they're just trying to swim."

So, she made a joke.

National Guardsmen were everywhere behind the scenes, making sure fans generally kept their hands off of swimmers, escorting swimmers from one place to another and securing the pool deck.

One was already on the elevator when Braunecker stepped in.

"So, I look over at the National Guard member and I'm like, 'Do you have people grab at them often?'" Braunecker said, referring to Phelps and Adrian.

The guardsmen answered, "Well, yeah. But not these two because they're not as well known."

Braunecker quipped, "Oh, yeah, they're nobodies."

"And Nathan Adrian and Michael Phelps straight up laughed at me," Braunecker said, "and I was like, yes!"

Her chance encounter with two of the world's best is one of the memories the former Effingham High School swimmer will hold onto from her first appearance at the U.S. Olympic trials. That, and the puppy play room.

There were service dogs available to stressed-out swimmers.

"So, I was stressed all the time," Braunecker said. "So, I could be in the room with them to play with a bunch of dogs, lay around and have them all lick your face. It was great."

All of the behind-the-scenes stuff was more than she ever dreamed of, watching the trials every four years at her home. The meet itself could've been better.

She placed 68th overall (out of 178), finishing her heat of the 50-meter freestyle last Saturday in 26.18, under the Olympic trials' qualifying time by 0.01 but 0.02 slower than her best -- the 26.16 she hit to qualify for the trials in January 2015.

The last of 16 qualifiers for the 50-meter freestyle semifinals finished her heat in 25.53. The next day, Abbey Weitzel (24.28) and Simone Manuel (24.33) punched their tickets to Rio de Janeiro for the Olympic Games in August.

These trials didn't have to be a fairytale, though. Braunecker, who started her first online college class Wednesday, moves in to the University of Louisville today, and swim team practice starts Monday.

"I got the experience I wanted to get and went there to get, for 2020," said Braunecker, who finally had a few days to relax at her home this week. "So, I can come back and have a little bit more confidence and know how the meet is run and how everything is instituted there and what's expected."

Braunecker moved to Chicago on May 23, the day after her high school graduation, to live with her aunt and uncle and start preparing for the trials in an Olympic-sized pool (50 meters long).

She's never had a local pool to train in. Effingham High School doesn't have a swimming team. So, she always traveled to Mattoon to practice at the YMCA and even further to Chicago to race with her club team, the Academy Bullets.

The $15 million, 80,000 square foot Workman Sports Complex opened in February in Effingham with a pool Braunecker could use. But at only 25 meters long, she couldn't accurately time herself or swim as hard to the wall because she'd have to make a flip turn to swim two lengths of the pool instead of one.

"What that helps with is getting my endurance up and knowing what a 50-meter pool feels like," Braunecker said. "In the past, I'd go to a 50-meter meet and it'd almost be like a shock to my system."

She made her way to Omaha three days early, soon enough to settle in but not too long as to lose practice time, and watched a couple close friends make the Olympic team.

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Ryan Held, a Springfield native, finished third in the 100-meter freestyle but clocked a fast enough time to make the U.S. 4x100 freestyle relay team.

Kelsi Worrell won the 100-meter butterfly with the second-fastest time in the world this year. Worrell, who just graduated from Louisville, was Braunecker's "go-to" during her college recruiting trips and a "big sister" at the Olympic trials.

They were part of a generational shift for U.S. swimming, with first-time Olympians making up right around half of the American team going to Rio.

"It's cool to see how my generation is now taking the name of swimming, and I'm just excited to see how they're going to start transitioning our stories and moving the, I guess, veterans out," Braunecker said.

The biggest sign of it happened during the third day when Missy Franklin finished seventh in the 100-meter backstroke, one of four events for which she has a gold medal from 2012 in London.

The winner, Olivia Smoliga, was another familiar face to Braunecker.

Smoliga, a 2013 graduate of Glenbrook South High School, and Braunecker finished 1-2 in the 50-meter freestyle at the IHSA state meet in 2013 when Braunecker was a freshman. 

Braunecker won two state titles as a junior, in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events.

Although she wasn't a part of her generation's overtaking, relative to making the Olympic team, perspective on her single performance is key.

Her 26.16 to qualify for the trials was among the 168th to 171st (out of 191) best times posted entering the week.

While she stayed right around that mark in Omaha, more than 60 percent tapered off. There were 108 heat times worse than the qualifying mark each swimmer had to hit to even compete.

Braunecker proved she belongs in the better half.

"As soon as I touched the wall, I knew I didn't make it back," Braunecker said. "But at the same time, watching the next heats go, just the pressure of the meet usually gets to people ... not many people make the actual Olympic trial cut at Olympic trials."

When she swan a 26.18 in her heat, it was her second-best career time in the 50. She swims comfortably between 26.5 and 26.7 in practice and hasn't been slower than 27 seconds in years.

Her goals for the past couple years have orbited around the idea of qualifying for the Olympic trials. After Omaha, she's learned to aim higher.

"To make the Olympic team, you have to train to break the world record, not to make the team," said Braunecker of the message her coach left her with. "If you just train to make the Olympic team, you'll fall short every single time.

"It was good to see the heartbreak ... even some of the old Olympians. Matt Grevers and Natalie Coughlin, who I've watched since I was little make the team, they left the meet early because they realized they weren't going to make it to Rio.

"Just knowing that it like happens to everyone. You have to be your best you possibly can be. You have to be the top two in the country on that specific day."

With her first trials behind her, she's set her sights on the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Omaha was all about gathering the experiences and knowledge she needs to start preparing for the next cycle, when she'll still be one of the young ones gunning to take a spot on the team.

The experience she'll pull from her race may actually be what happened before she took her mark on the starting block.

Braunecker was wearing three layers -- T-shirt, long-sleeve shirt, hoodie -- to stay warm before her race. The heat before hers started, which gave her 50 meters (about 25 seconds) to get down to her uniform and go through her pre-race routine.

Her hoodie caught onto her swim cap and she went stumbling around the pool deck, wrestling to get the sweatshirt off.

"It was definitely just one of those moments where I was like, 'Wow, thousands of people just saw me about fall in the pool because I couldn't get my sweatshirt off my head,' so that will probably be in my memory forever as my embarrassing moment of my first time at Olympic trials," Braunecker said.

"But it just kind of brought me back to the fact that this is nothing more than a 50-meter pool on a stage that's a little bit bigger, and I'm just here to swim. I think that kind of loosened the mood a little bit because I was a little tense. I finally did end up getting my hoodie off, threw it in the little basket that they go in and got ready to swim."

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